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Erica Hughes, far right, volunteers at a Bark for Life fundraising event with fellow volunteers Susan Garvey, left, and Linda Mazer, behind Garvey. Hughes works to find both permanent and foster homes for cats and dogs in Pitt County. (Contributed photo)

Fostering Gratifies Lifelong Desire to Care for Animals

By Judy Currin

Erica Hughes considers a pair of orange traffic cones the best Christmas present she ever received. Unusual maybe, but helpful when you are in charge of selecting and transporting shelter dogs and cats to Petsmart every Saturday. A volunteer coordinator with Friends of the Pitt County Animal Shelter since 2002, Hughes and a small group of ten steady volunteers seek foster homes for animals until permanent homes can be found.

“Setting up at Petsmart is sometimes challenging,” said Hughes, a staff member at ECU’s Student Health Service. “Because we are there every weekend, folks tend to crowd around the van while we are trying to unload the dogs and cats we so hope will be adopted.”
On one particularly busy Saturday, Hughes commented that orange cones would keep crowds at bay until the animals were properly unloaded.

“For Christmas this year, volunteer Linda Mazer gave me the cones,” Hughes said. “We use them every weekend. It’s a huge help.”

Pitt Friends is a non-profit group that was created in 2000 by Bobbie Parsons, founder and inspiration for the organization. “Our mission is to find homes for the animals at the high kill shelter,” Hughes said. The shelter houses 65 dogs and 20 cats. Because of space concerns, health issues and age, the window of survival time for a stray animal is generally only 72 hours. Animals chosen for foster homes are safe from euthanasia.

Candidates for fostering are required to volunteer with Pitt Friends for 24 hours before they are approved. “The animals are fortunate to be placed with volunteer foster homes,” Hughes said. “Without them, the dogs and cats may never know life outside the shelter. With every foster dog or cat adopted, that allows a foster home to pull an new animal from the shelter into foster care,” she said. “It’s a win-win situation.”

Monies acquired through fundraisers assist volunteer foster homes with food and vet bills for the animals in their care. “We have a yard sale once a year, several food drives and receive donations on Saturdays while at Petsmart from members of the community,” Hughes said. An additional source of income is the American Cancer Society’s Bark for Life, a Relay for Life fundraising event that honors the care-giving qualities of canine companions. Pitt Friends has eight foster homes to date, with a two animal limit per home. Petsmart and petfinder.com allow people to view the animals available for adoption.

Another of Pitt Friend’s missions is to increase public awareness about heartworm prevention and disease. “Heartworms are transmitted to dogs and cats by mosquitoes,” Hughes said. “Monthly medication is the most effective tool in preventing this disease,” she said. “Un-monitored, it can be deadly.”

Volunteering at the Pitt County Animal shelter is Hughes’ way of surrounding herself with as many animals as she wants without the full time responsibility of ownership. “A successful adoption is like winning the lottery,” she said. “It’s a great feeling.” Hughes has fostered 62 animals over her 8-year involvement with Pitt Friends and found homes for all of them, except Casey, a Catahoula Leopard dog.

“Casey is our current foster dog,” Hughes said. “She’s a real sweetheart. And has made herself at home with our three other dogs, Kiaya, Kolbee, Ashby (who was once a foster) and our cat, Zeus. It’s a pretty crazy household. My husband Marty loves them as much as I do.”

Hughes' most memorable experience is being named the 2009 North Carolina Volunteer of the Year. The N.C. Rabies Control Association recognized her service as coordinator for Pitt Friends. She was also nominated for recognition in ECU’s 2010 Servire Society.

“The reason I do what I do is because I have always been an animal lover,” Hughes said. “I was the little girl who wanted to save every turtle, rabbit, rat, cat, dog, or deer that ever wandered into our yard.” Good thing her parents were animal lovers as well.

Anyone interested in volunteering with Pitt Friends or fostering an animal from the shelter may contact Erica Hickman Hughes at hickmane@ecu.edu.
    

This story appeared originally in the April 30, 2010 issue of Pieces of Eight. An archived version of that issue is available at http://www.ecu.edu/news/cs-admin/poe/2010/410/April-2010-Archives.cfm.